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Something New



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok




The following is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is coincidental.



*****


Rundle Falke ran his eyes down the length of Tony’s Bar looking for an empty stool. He always chose a stool at random, hoping to see something new from a new position in the room. It was hard to pick a stool he wasn’t familiar with. There were very few stools in the bars of Bangkok that Rundle had never occupied, and he hadn’t seen anything new in ages. But he had hope.

Watching what went on in the bars, and writing about what he saw, was how Rundle made his living. His column, “The Night Stalker,” had appeared every Saturday in the Bangkok PennySaver for thirty years. His column filled an entire page, something almost unheard of in any newspaper in the world. His contract stated that he had absolute freedom to write anything he pleased, without intrusion from editors. That was something else almost unheard of in print journalism. Each week Rundle exploited this unique opportunity by filling most of his page with the press releases that came to him by e-mail. Most of these press releases concerned upcoming special events at the better hotels. But the readers who knew his work skipped those and sought out the glimpses of the seedy side of the city that he slipped into the column in disjointed paragraphs between the press releases.

His regular readers counted on Rundle to tell them which bars had just welcomed a minivan full of inexperienced girls from the Northeast, which bars had paid the police to be allowed to stay open an extra hour, and which ones offered live sex shows without a cover charge. Expatriate bachelors in the city clipped his recommendations and put them on their refrigerators. They planned their weekends around Rundle’s recommendations. The tourists who discovered his column believed that they had found a guide to a secret, hidden part of the famous Bangkok night life that other tourists never saw, a glimpse behind the veil at the “real” lives of bar girls and touts.

Rundle’s popularity, at least when measured by readership, was enormous, and it came despite the fact that most of the information he offered could be had by asking the doorman at any hotel. Market surveys showed that even those who hated the idea of what Rundle did still read “The Night Stalker” every week. Those who hated him most followed his column most closely. Rundle was about as successful as a newspaper columnist can be. He had held his office longer than any politician in the city. He was still making money in the bars long after the bar girls he met his first year on the beat had retired.

Rundle settled himself more comfortably on the bar stool. He looked around the room, saw the usual half-drunk men carousing with half-drunk women. A thin man in a bright blue Hawaiian shirt walked unsteadily into the bar. He approached a woman, whispered something in her ear, and got a rude brush off. Nothing new there. Rundle swept the fingertips of his right hand over the bar to check for stickiness. He placed a stack of post cards and a pen on a clean spot. He had learned early that if you write in a notebook in a tavern you make people nervous. But if you scribble on post cards you look like any other tourist. In fact, Rundle resembled a tourist in many ways. His clothes always looked as if he’d been sleeping in them. He was pale, a little overweight, and he complained a lot about the heat and the mosquitoes. What set him apart from most of the type of tourist who hangs out in Bangkok bars was that Rundle did not enjoy the company of prostitutes. He found them untrustworthy, pushy and loud.

A pair of them was being too loud for Rundle’s taste right now, berating a Western man who was seated on a padded bench against the wall of Tony’s Bar. Clad only in pristine white panties they were standing in front of the man, shouting and waving their arms around. The man’s face showed a mixture of indignation at being chastised by trollops and fascination with their breasts, which were bare, at his eye level, only a foot from his face and bouncing around as the women shook their fists at him. Rundle had seen a hundred performances of this little play. It had an energetic second act but lagged in the third. The man would soon offer both women money to calm them down. They would all end up great friends, as long as his money lasted. It was nothing new, nothing that would ever make good copy and so it was just an annoyance. While the two near-naked women raged at the seated man they were the focus of attention for everybody in the room, and so nothing else of interest would happen until they had hushed. Rundle considered leaving and going to the next bar, but it was unlikely that this early in the evening anything more interesting would be happening anywhere else. Besides, the bartender had just placed a chilled glass of orange juice in front of Rundle, and it was still damned hot outside.

Rundle pulled at his shirt to get some air against his chest and made bored putt-putt-putt noises with his lips. The thin man in the bright blue Hawaiian shirt was leaning weakly against the bar. He asked a woman next to him something, and was told to go away. Sometimes Rundle’s job was excruciating in its boredom. Bangkok were either tiny windowless rooms, or giant juke boxes full of endlessly repeating strobe lights, where the same songs played over and over. The big bars were just as claustrophobic as the small ones, in Rundle’s mind. If there was nothing going on in a Bangkok bar it was like being trapped in an elevator. The eyes and the mind had nowhere to wander. Fighting the boredom of his job was a major occupation for Rundle.

He was bored right now. He yearned for something new to happen. He sipped at his orange juice, but found that the bartender had put sugar syrup in it. Well, this bartender was new, apparently. That was something, at least. He didn’t know Rundle’s tastes. It was new, but not really new. It had happened perhaps a thousand times over thirty years. The last time anything really new happened in a Bangkok bar was when the city outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants. Those were some heady weeks for Rundle; the new law literally changed the atmosphere of an entire industry. Everybody in the bars was cranky and foul tempered and unpredictable for weeks, and Rundle was in heaven.

Before that the last really new thing to happen was the almost overnight introduction of the cell phone into bar girl society. It was enormous fun for Rundle to watch thousands of women who almost never wore any pants try to figure out how to carry a tool designed to fit into a pocket.

But it had been years since the smoking prohibition, and Rundle was bored. He was famous, powerful, and bored. The men, Thai or farang, who owned the bars knew that Rundle’s column could bring in the crowds or keep the crowds away, and in the early days he’d been threatened a few times with violence or even death. But eventually those same people had learned that properly manipulated Rundle’s column was extremely useful. So Rundle had influence with all the bar owners and even with the police, who often had a need to communicate with the foreign community through unofficial channels. This made Rundle the object of respect and even fear in the bars of Bangkok. If Rundle had been at all attracted to bar girls he could have enjoyed a lot of free sex. But Rundle was happily married, a doting father, and he was only in the bars to make money. He had that in common with the women who worked in the bars, who were also bored with their jobs. Like them he slept in the daytime and ate his breakfast at sundown. Like them he came home after work smelling of stale beer and dried sweat, half deaf from over-amplified music, disgusted with the behavior of the tourists and vaguely ashamed of his profession. Rundle often had more in common with the women he wrote about than he had in common with the people who read what he wrote.

The two women who had been screaming obscenities at the Western man ten minutes ago were now cuddled up in his lap, their arms around his neck. The women were kissing each other passionately, much to the man’s apparent delight. Rundle yawned. The other women and customers had gone back to their drinking and dancing. The thin man in the blue shirt approached another woman, asked his question, and was sent away. He left the bar with slumped shoulders, stumbling a little on his way through the door. Rundle looked around for something new, or at least something interesting to note down on a post card. The problem was that he had been in countless similar bars on countless similar nights. He had written about everything that could happen in such a place, written about it a dozen times or more.

Rundle was like the oil pressure gauge in an expensive automobile: a sensor device attached to an extremely well designed and efficient machine, one streamlined by half a century of constant operation, its foundation tested by six centuries of concubine culture. It was a machine beautiful in its simplicity and economy, but it was a machine that did only one fairly mundane thing: move men’s money into women’s purses, and then move a portion of that money into the wallet of the man who owned the bar. A man falls from his stool in a drunken stupor, a naked woman slips on beer and skins her knee, a woman brings a man she’s known for only five minutes to orgasm with her hands under a table. But at closing time the only important, solid, measurable, definite thing that has happened is that money has moved from A to B to C. The machine ran twenty-four hours a day and never missed a stroke. And Rundle Falke was the little two-dollar plastic and chrome meter on the back of the machine that read a constant, steady value year after year after year.

In the beginning of his career the tiny variations in the workings of the machine had held some interest for Rundle. He had enjoyed learning about the gears and cogs and push bars inside the machine: the court battles over ownership that could leave a bar without a legal owner for years at a time, with the profits disappearing monthly into some limbo of lawyer’s and policemen’s pockets; the friendships made and broken in the back office and in the ladies’ room; the way the women picked their customers but always convinced the customer it was him making a choice. The way the women danced differently on the days leading up to and the days after their periods. The way they aged so rapidly in the bars, the way they called all the men “Darleeng” because they couldn’t remember all those names. The ways they laughed, the ways they cried, the ways they prayed. But now it was all just routine. It was all dull and drab. He sat on his stool in Tony’s Bar and let his eyes wander around the room, praying for something new to happen.


*****


On Fridays Rundle wrote his column, Sundays and Mondays he did not work. Tuesdays he began his week’s research at Nana Plaza and Patpong, Wednesdays he covered Soi 33 and Washington Square, and on Thursdays he went to Soi Cowboy. This was a Thursday so he was on Soi Cowboy, where he began as always with noodle soup and fried rice at the Old Dutch Restaurant before proceeding on his rounds. He always tried to finish his tour about an hour after closing time. After so many years Rundle never even needed to check his watch; he could tell how close he was to closing time by the action in the bars and outside on the pavements. Early in the evening the girls were taking their time, being picky, but as closing time approached they grabbed up whatever tourist was left on the street. After the bars closed the streets filled with men and women making instant ill-advised connections. Whenever Rundle saw a transvestite dragging a man almost unconscious with drink into a taxi, he felt joy: it was time to go home.

After leaving Tony’s Bar Rundle made his way down the street. He had no pattern for choosing which bars he entered; he knew them all, and knew that the same old things would be happening everywhere. He would drift, going back and forth across the street, letting his whims choose his venues, always hopeful he’d see something new but never believing he would. He was as likely to enter a bar because the bar next door had a baby elephant outside as he was for any other reason. Rundle hated elephants. They never did anything new. The girls who worked the doors, who shouted suggestive invitations to the tourists, never shouted anything at Rundle. They never called him “saxy man” or asked him “where you go?” They all knew him.

When bars in Bangkok changed hands, Rundle’s schedule was passed from the old owner to the new with the lease. If an owner had something he wanted to advertise, or a bone to pick, he’d tell his most experienced door girl to keep an eye out for Rundle on whatever night of the week Rundle was in the neighborhood. A few times every night a woman would sidle up to him and give him her best wai, saying, “Missah Bob/Hans/Abdul/Chen say can you come talk him now, p’ease.” Rundle would amble inside the bar, or if it was going to be a long discussion they’d sit outside, and the owner would make a pitch, or a plea, or simply pass on some gossip he hoped would damage a competitor’s business. Rundle no longer carried any flicker of hope that the man would have anything new to share.

Rundle meandered his way from bar to bar down the length of Soi Cowboy. He made note of a bar for sale; nothing new but it was worth a mention toward the top of the page. Several times he saw the thin man in the blue shirt approach a woman, whisper something in her ear, and be dismissed with laughter or insults or both. He saw a drunken tourist whose bad manners earned him a beating; nothing new there. Still if Rundle needed filler a warning about bar etiquette was always useful; learning that there were actually rules of behavior in the bars was something that surprised a lot of tourists. Finding out about the rules fit into the “behind the scenes” promise implied in “The Night Stalker” brand. Also finding out that three little guys high on speed can easily kick one big drunk’s ass was a revelation to a lot of readers.

All around him Rundle saw men made stupid by lust and liquor. It was everywhere he looked, like wallpaper. Young men, old men, rich men, poor men. Tinker, tailor, Indian chief. A man goes through life pursuing women and meeting resistance every step of the way; remove the resistance suddenly and a man is likely to lose his balance and fall down. Up and down the street, in the bars, in the V.I.P. rooms, on the street, in the taxis. Men spending all their money in a rush, then borrowing more and spending that just as fast. Men shouting too loud because they were scared, shouting too loud because they were angry, shouting too loud because they thought they had found happiness. Best friends travelled to Thailand together and left as bitter enemies. Men who came from different nations and different occupations and different religions met in a bar, shared an adventure and became brothers, only to separate a week later at the airport and never meet again. Sometimes Rundle wanted to shout a warning to all these men: “Look out! You’re going to hurt yourself!” But they would never believe him if he did. Still, doing it would be something new, so he thought about it.

Half way through his night’s work Rundle sat down on a plastic chair on the sidewalk in front of After Skool A-Go-Go. Somebody put a cold glass of orange juice, unsweetened, on the table in front of him and sidled away. Rundle took a sip and grudgingly approved. The thin man in the blue shirt passed by, caught a woman by an elbow but before he could speak she shouted, “NO! You ask awready! Go ‘way!” Rundle leaned back and looked up at the thin slice of night sky visible between the buildings. “When I started this job,” he said out loud, though nobody was listening, “you could still see stars up there.”


*****


In the early hours of the morning Rundle dropped into a plastic chair outside the Midnite Bar. He was across the street from Tony’s Bar. He’d been down the street and back, into and out of Moonshine Joint and Spice Girls, Long Gun and Rawhide. He’d wandered through Five Star, Déjà vu, Dollhouse, Sheba, Shark and Baccara. He’d visited a few vendors in the street stalls and joked around with a five-year-old girl selling jasmine garlands. He’d spent five precious hours of his life on Soi Cowboy, talked with a dozen people and had six glasses of orange juice. He placed his post cards on the plastic table and looked over his notes.

• NID at Our Place wants her regulars to know she’s back from the Northeast and wants to see all her old Darlings.

• PET at Fanny’s wants her regulars to know her sister is here from the Northeast and they’re working together as a team but just for special Darlings.

• GAEW at Cactus Bar wants Canadian Jim to know she is going to the Northeast for a couple of weeks but she’s left his clothes and passport in the keeping of “he know who.”

There were a handful of other notes in a similar vein. Absolutely nothing new. All stuff that he’d written many times in more than fifteen hundred columns. Rundle felt as if he was carrying a great weight on his shoulders. He ached to see something new. Instead he saw the thin man in the bright blue Hawaiian shirt stumbling down the street. Either the man was very drunk or exhausted nearly to the point of collapse. At the end of the block a trio of obvious transvestites were engaged in hilarious conversation, with much arm waving and flipping back of their long, shiny hair. Rundle knew just what was going to happen, and it gave him a small pleasurable feeling, because when one of the transvestites hustled the drunken man in the blue shirt into a taxi it would mean that it was time for Rundle to go home.

He watched as the man approached the corner. Rundle clicked his pen closed and put it in his shirt pocket. The transvestites noticed the man in the blue shirt and stopped their conversation. Rundle gathered up his post cards into a neat pile. The thin man in the blue shirt staggered up to the three faux women and the tallest one threw her arm over his shoulder. With her free hand she began to stroke his chest. Rundle stood and hitched up his pants.

He had taken one step away from his chair when he froze in his tracks. The man in the blue shirt had asked the tall transvestite something and she had barked with laughter. She stood back from the man and stared at him in amazement. Rundle heard the man say, “Please. I haven’t eaten in days.”

And then something happened that amazed Rundle. It made him stop breathing for a moment. The tall transvestite opened her purse and handed the man in the bright blue Hawaiian shirt a fifty-baht note. The man took it and put his hands together at his forehead. He bowed his head and said, “Thank you, oh God, thank you so much.” The three transvestites giggled their way around the corner and disappeared; the man in the blue shirt stumbled to the nearest street vendor and ordered food.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Rundle sighed, “that’s something new.” With a look of utter happiness on his face he sat back down and took out his pen.